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Apple’s Tablet Computer History
November 11, 2010 2:02 AM   Subscribe

Apple’s Tablet Computer History - A collection of beautiful prototype designs for some of Apple's early tablet computers from the 1980s and 90s, including the famed Newton [ related | via ]
posted by Blazecock Pileon (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was going to snark about corporate fandom, but these are legitimately interesting. I had no idea people were considering full-screen LCDs that early in the 80s and that Apple was already working on making things thin way back then.
posted by keratacon at 3:45 AM on November 11, 2010


It's funny that the go-to interaction device in all of these is a stylus pen. Even as recently as the middle of this decade touch interfaces were stylus based. It took Apple themselves to realize that the best interaction mode is with the fingers.
posted by splatta at 4:17 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obligatory Simpsons reference.
posted by NoMich at 4:18 AM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's funny that the go-to interaction device in all of these is a stylus pen. Even as recently as the middle of this decade touch interfaces were stylus based. It took Apple themselves to realize that the best interaction mode is with the fingers.

But was the touch screen technology always there? I mean, in terms of being able to read a finger flowing around the screen. This is a legitimate question, by the way, I really have no idea. For some reason I'm under the impression that touch screens could only read single x,y coordinate touches, not free flowing oh my god this dude is inputting tons of x,y coordinates in a single touch.
posted by NoMich at 4:21 AM on November 11, 2010


It would be interesting to see a gallery of all tablet computers, to how different companies developed things. I think Microsoft was doing really interesting things too, but never figured out how to really perfect it and sell it.
posted by nomadicink at 4:24 AM on November 11, 2010


The one in 1992 already had a cd rom tray!
posted by Omnomnom at 4:42 AM on November 11, 2010


> But was the touch screen technology always there? I mean, in terms of being able to read a finger flowing around the screen.

I don't have a good answer that question, but I suspect that part of the ongoing fascination with pen input has to do with handwriting and drawing having been done with pens and pencils in real life. So if you're going to handwrite on your computer, yeah, of course you're going to use a proxy for the real life thing.

There's something to it, actually. I have a pen input device (Wacom tablet) and finger input device (iPad), and pen input has its appeal. With a pen, I use my wrist and upper arm more in drawing strokes, while with a finger input, it's too easy to flick lines with a fingertip.

Handwriting also feels weirder when drawn with my fingertip, although that's purely a matter of something to get used to.

There are no small number of companies offering pen styluses for your iPhone and iPad, so there's still a lot of love out there for them, even if only by people who seem hell-bent on selling styluses.
posted by ardgedee at 4:52 AM on November 11, 2010


But during focus group meetings, user’s didn’t really know what to do with the snap on lid, and the rubber protrusions reminded them of nipples. As a result, the lid was removed altogether.

I can imagine how a sudden resemblance of nipples can ruin a focus group meeting.
posted by Free word order! at 5:20 AM on November 11, 2010


I don't have a good answer that question, but I suspect that part of the ongoing fascination with pen input has to do with handwriting and drawing having been done with pens and pencils in real life. So if you're going to handwrite on your computer, yeah, of course you're going to use a proxy for the real life thing.

When you're inviting artistic comparisons, you want to be evoking a sketchpad, not fingerpainting.
posted by kafziel at 5:25 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is rarer to lose a finger than a stylus.

A stylus does not smear the screen.

It is easier to fix a smeared screen than a lost stylus.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:25 AM on November 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


> When you're inviting artistic comparisons, you want to be evoking a sketchpad, not fingerpainting.

More practically, pressure sensitivity is easier to emulate with a stylus than your bare finger. It isn't as comfortable pushing your finger hard onto bare glass as it is to push a teflon-tipped pen tip into a tablet.
posted by ardgedee at 5:33 AM on November 11, 2010


The survey strangely omits this product.
posted by hexatron at 5:40 AM on November 11, 2010


I remember reading once that the first accurate styluses were using capacitive induction from the screen, not the screen using pressure from the stylus. Maybe once you go down the road of using a pen for input, it's hard to turn around. Me personally I go back and forth, some touch screens with styluses will respond pretty well to a fingernail touch, and I'll do that if I'm in the checkout line rather than fumble with the clunky stylus tethered there. But I wouldn't dream of rubbing my fingers around on my Wacom tablet, the pen and its buttons are a necessary part of the control for me.

The Newton is a pretty impressive bit of tech, I've still got mine hanging around the kitchen, it's set up for my home wireless network, but I don't do much with it these days except print the occasional grocery list to show off to fellow nerds. A fun fact is that Apple bought a controlling share in ARM processors since they used them in the Newton and didn't want a repeat of the Motorola/RISC debacle. And now what processor is in both the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch? Yup, descendants of the good old StrongARM first used in the Newton.

Anyway, Apple used to make some pretty gorgeous stuff, and if you're at all interested in obsessive documentation of it, you should really check out Sonny Hung's awe-inspiring collection: Collection: Newton on Flickr.

And if you must make an obvious joke about the Newton's handwriting recognition, at least go for the one that made it into the hardware: Egg Freckles.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 5:44 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Back in the early seventies, my dad got one of the first commercially available LED-numeral display desk calculators, I think from TI. It looks similar to what we would think of as a basic four-function calculator today, although closer in size to a full-fledged scientific calculator. It was (almost exactly!) MeFi Blue with a one-inch blue-green stacked-box style LED display.

It also used a stylus for input. Where we would today expect buttons, the device had an exposed grid of brass squares in the familiar basic layout of a 3x3 numeral selection area (or maybe 4x3) and functions down the right hand side.

I was fascinated by the device and remember pestering Dad about it persistently for a while, and in particular asking him why it didn't just have buttons. What he told me was that usability studies indicated that stylus-based input systems resulted in fewer input errors! I'm still not quite sure where he got this from. it could very well have been the marketing for the device itself. It could also have been something he learned while in engineering school in the fifties.

Whatever the case, I think it does demonstrate that at least one mid-career engineer in the seventies had received information regarding the superiority of stylus input or were prone to believing that information when exposed to it. I should note that my dad had not worked directly as an engineer since the late 50s but still strongly relied on his engineering skills to conduct analysis in his work.
posted by mwhybark at 6:35 AM on November 11, 2010


... and here's the device. Not TI, obvs.
posted by mwhybark at 6:39 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have this book! It is the very first thing I ever bought on amazon dot com, in '97 or '98.
posted by thejoshu at 6:41 AM on November 11, 2010


Looks like we killed the link.
posted by octothorpe at 7:03 AM on November 11, 2010


Yeah, not getting the liquidpubs page to load, but the Flickr set that 1f2frfbf linked to above is an admirable substitute. I used to drool over these and similar prototypes and design models, back in the day, in the pages of Macworld and other Apple-oriented magazines, before the web and Photoshop let just about anybody come up with a glossy rendition of what they thought Apple's next toy would or should be. These could be a lot more appealing than the functional, but visually boring, platinum and beige boxes that Apple had for most of a decade before Jobs came back (although there were some very nice PowerBook designs in that time frame); their attempt to break out of that rut was kind of a fiasco.

I nearly got a Newton, but was discouraged not only by the price but also by its size; I was really hoping for something more pocket-sized, and ended up eventually getting a Palm III as my first PDA. (The III was, of course, much more limited in its capabilities than the Newton, but also much more portable, and handsome in its own way. It was also quite sturdy, lasting as long as my next three Palms put together.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:36 AM on November 11, 2010


God, I wish we still had the Doctor Who-based videos we made as kids. Because since the props we made were using bits and pieces from Apple IIe, I swear that we had characters "from the future" using a device using pretty much just like the Bashful (though our videos were made after 1983)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:41 AM on November 11, 2010


But was the touch screen technology always there? I mean, in terms of being able to read a finger flowing around the screen.

I can remember checking out touch screen monitors around the same time as the Apple II (1982-ish), obviously CRT based, at the techno-malls in Singapore. IIRC, they used a grid of IR lights/sensors projected just above the screen, so your finger interrupted the lights from the sides. No pressure sensitivity possible.
posted by nomisxid at 10:31 AM on November 11, 2010


Thanks for posting this, if only to provide me with photographic backup for my usually-disbelieved anecdote about seeing a tablet-sized Newton OS device... (that I'd have been in a position to see one isn't really in question, based on what I was doing at the time; it's just that there seems a paucity of pictures available to prove the thing itself existed...)
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 1:28 PM on November 11, 2010


I think the finger input method finally won over the stylus because handwriting is effectively dead as a common form of communication. Maybe not completely dead yet, but the typing is on the wall.
posted by mullingitover at 2:04 PM on November 11, 2010


It took Apple themselves to realize that the best interaction mode is with the fingers.

I always figured that someone was up late one night watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when they had that realization.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:09 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Should have stuck with the styluses. How can anyone take notes on an iPad for long? It's like finger-painting!
posted by Apocryphon at 8:18 PM on November 11, 2010


my 10th grade typing teacher used to have his kids do an exercise on the first day of class, then repeat it in the second or third week of class: He'd have them take dictation longhand, then on the keyboard. By the second time, typing won (handily) every time.

So, analog letter-by-letter creation as the means of inputting text -- that's just never going to be as fast as a keyboard, at least not while we have to actually use physical fingers to do it with.

(I don't have many prejudices about the means of inputting those characters, as long as it's a relatively small number of relatively simple motor actions. e.g., both my stepkids could T9 as fast as most people can type, and faster than they could write longhand. the boy even did it in complete sentences. both gave up their 12-key for qwerty and have never looked back, so they probably couldn't do that anymore.)

This is going to be a handicap of all tablets until alternative means of input are developed. People will work around it just as they refuse to acknowledge it, just as they've done with phones. 12-key phones are less and less common all the time, replaced by qwerty. I don't think we'll be jacking the tablets into our brains any time real soon, so I'm thinking some kind of qwerty is really going to be required before the tablet is more effective than a paper notebook.

Note that I'm not saying anything about popularity. People do all kinds of things because they're more effective in a particular dimension, while losing effectiveness in others. I see hand-writing on screens as having a role sort of like the role that the fax had in the 90s: faxes bridged the human generation gap between paper mail and email*; handwriting on a screen is a bridge until somebody figures out a way to make a sexy-looking tablet that has single-gesture entry for letters. (Or phonemes, I don't care. Whatever people will actually DO.)

I'm not ranking on the iPad here, but rather on the concept of tablets. They've all (more or less) got this same problem. It's the key thing that's kept me from getting an ebook reader: no easy way to take notes. You can have a separate keyboard, but then it's not functioning as a tablet. A screen large enough to touch-type (or even thumb-type) would be a useful compromise. iPad seems to have that. I haven't tried touch-typing on one, but I think you could probably do it if you were careful. I haven't played with a 7" tablet, but I've worked with people's iPhones and I think thumb-typing could potentially work pretty well on a 7" screen. (because it works surprisingly well on the smaller ones.)

I'm also not arguing that tablets as a form-factor are a flash in the pan. I think they're here to stay; I also think the attached keyboard may have been one of the two big things that held them back before now. (The other being use of a desktop OS. Apple and Google are going to beat MS because they broke loose from that constraint.) (And yes, Newton did, too; neither hardware nor users were ready for it, is all.) I don't think I'm contradicting myself; I'm arguing that people didn't want to use a tablet as a computer, they wanted to use it as less than a computer. For that reason, I think the 7" tables will probably catch on better than the larger ones, Jobs' opinion notwithstanding (i.e., they're more portable). And that that's why Apple will eventually build a 7" iPad (again, Jobs' stated opinion notwithstanding).

Me, I've got my eye on the NotionInk Adam. Here's hoping they decide to manufacture it in Ferrari Red, like the samples.

--
*I recall one fax "technology" that I thought was really cool for about 5 minutes. It was this software that would output binary files as 2D barcodes, which could then be faxed and scanned on the other end -- or just interpreted by the same software if it was a faxmodem-to-faxmodem xfer. It was after that second part that I started to get that Looking Glass feeling, like maybe I'd been there before. It probably wasn't until the next time I attached an image to an email and sent it that it dawned on me what a short lifespan this "technology" was going to have...
posted by lodurr at 7:30 AM on November 15, 2010


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